On Tuesday, Father George Muttathuparambil rushed into the chapel at the Salesian Province House in Bengaluru and offered prayers of gratitude when he heard that Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State group in Yemen on March 4, 2016, had been freed earlier that day.
“When I came out of the chapel, memories of the days we spent in Yemen came back to my mind,” said the 55-year-old priest from the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic group that works among the poor.
Muttathuparambil and Uzhunnalil had gone to Yemen in 2010 on the request of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, which was running four old age homes in that country. Also in the group were Father George Puthussery and Father Varghese John. They also provided other religious services to expatriates from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan living in Yemen.
“Our friendship dates back to 1987,” Muttathuparambil said. “ It was the year when I joined Kristu Jyoti College in Bangalore for the four-year theology course. He [Uzhunnalil] was two years senior to me. It didn’t affect our friendship. We used to discuss a lot of things,”
Uzhunnalil became a priest in 1990 and “I followed suit in 1991,” Muttathuparambil said.
Both of them lived in different parts of Karnataka after attaining priesthood and met only once in a year at the Salesian Province House in Bengaluru.
But the Yemen assignment brought them together once again.
“We couldn’t travel together as Uzhunnalil got his visa late,” Muttathuparambil said. “I reached on June 29 , and he joined us a week later.”
They provided religious services to devotees as well as the old or infirm staying in establishments run by the Missionaries of Charities in Sana’a, Taiz, Hudaydah and Aden. “Though we worked in different provinces, we used to meet once in a month at Sana’a, the capital of the country,” he said.
Uzhunnalil came to India in 2014 and joined the Kristu Jyoti Theology college as an administrator Muttathuparambil said. But the priest decided to return to Yemen in 2015, when a civil war broke out in the country, to assist the Christian community in the strife-torn region. The government had imposed travel restrictions, but Uzhunnalil posed as a medical aid worker of the United Nations to reach the country. “It was a testimony to his strong willpower,” Muttathuparambil said. “No one would have dared to take such a risk.”
The ongoing civil war between forces allied with internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the those who support the Houthi rebels has killed more than 7,500 people so far and has battered the economy of the country. As the situation in Yemen began to worsen, two other priests left for India in early 2016. Muttathuparambil and Uzhunnalil stayed on.
“We had faced many difficulties during the civil war, but Uzhunnalil gave me the courage to face the challenge,” Muttathuparambil said. “He used to call me everyday and would say that there was nothing to worry as god is with us.”
But on March 4, 2016, Uzhunnalil was abducted during a raid by suspected IS militants on a nursing home in Aden. At least 16 people were killed in the incident, including an Indian nun.
Uzhunnalil, had spoken to Muttathuparambil, who had been working in Taiz, even a day before the abduction. “So I was shocked when I got the call from Sister Sali, who survived the terrorists attack on March 4,” Muttathuparambil said. “She was weeping and told me that Uzhunnalil had been missing after the shootout. A shiver went down my spine and I didn’t know what to do. She told me that she had even searched the dead bodies.”
Muttathuparambil returned home on March 30 – three weeks after the abduction – as his passport needed to be renewed, and stayed on in India. “But I kept faith in god,” he said. “I was sure that he would come back alive.”
Muttathuparambil’s prayers were answered on Tuesday, when the government of the Sultanate of Oman secured Uzhunnalil’s release.“I salute his strong willpower that helped him survive for 557 days under the captivity of the terrorists,” the 55-year-old priest said.
Muttathuparambil, who is the Superior of the Salesian Provincial House in Bengaluru is now looking forward to his friend’s return. “He [Uzhunnalil] is in the Vatican now. We are waiting for his arrival in Bangalore soon.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Father Uzhunnalil became a priest.